Lately, I’ve been thinking about the treasure trove that can be found in life’s challenging times — the wisdom, the victories, the emotional muscle built and, of course, the stories. As those who know me well often say with a smile, “It’s always about the story with her.”
It fascinates me to see what the journey of life will drill into our souls and our minds and how it can turn so effortlessly into songs, books, poetry, movies and kitchen-table stories that will entertain, provoke and evoke.
Recently, I watched a PBS documentary on country-music legend Merle Haggard and was so captivated by that installment of “American Masters” that I saved it on the DVR and said to Tink when he returned home, “You must watch this, and I will watch it again with you. It’s fantastic.”
He, too, knows the power of personal experience and how it can translate into phrases, dialogue and paragraphs that will enable others to look into a life so different and feel its drama. To any kid wishing to make a living one day as a storyteller, I say this, “You cannot write anything special until you have lived special.” A college dorm, a summer spent hanging around with the same friends in the same places or a life of no adventure, tribulation or overcoming will result in no stories to tell. There are no stories of consequence to be found in safe or predictable.
When the documentary ended, Tink agreed with me — some of country music’s most enduring songs were born from Haggard’s unique perspective. His adored father died suddenly when Haggard was young, sending him into a spiral that put him in reform schools and, eventually, in San Quentin prison. He had about 10 years of hard living and poor decisions that would erupt from his soul in the form of No. 1 hits. Sitting in the audience at a Johnny Cash show at Quentin, Haggard made up his mind he would turn his life around and follow his passion for music.
From those few years at the nation’s top-security prison came story songs of remarkable depth that I could never imagine or think up for I never had that experience. An inmate led past Haggard’s jail cell toward execution later became the solemn hit, “Sing Me Back Home,” and the lament over the trouble he caused his praying mother was documented in “Mama Tried.”
Haggard is exceedingly proud of the success he has had and even respectful of the decade-long detour that poured forth a bounty of material that made him a star then turned him into a legend.
Many years ago, I met Haggard. I was backstage at a Nashville television taping with a friend. We walked by his dressing room and since the door was open, my friend stopped and said, “Merle, I want you to meet someone.”
Surprisingly small in stature, he stood, took my hand and gallantly gave a bow.
After a few courtesies, I remarked, “A music professor told me that opera singers consider your baritone to be pure and perfect. You’re used as a training example.”
Never have my words flattered anyone more. He pulled back his shoulders and lifted his chin while his chest visibly expanded to puff out with pride.
“Really? Opera singers train to my voice?” He grinned from ear to ear. “How about that!”
I thought about that day in his dressing room when I watched that documentary. His voice may be an example to operatic baritones, but I believe that he is a teaching example for turning sorrows and hard times into remarkable storytelling.
May all storytellers learn from such an American master on how to turn our own lives into art.
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